© Geoff Dyer. Extracted from ‘Working the Room’ by Geoff Dyer, to be published by Canongate on November 4th 2010
Almost half the children born in Britain today will never have a sibling. Geoff Dyer, acclaimed writer and only child, describes what it was like to grow up a singleton
My mother often quoted with approval the maxim, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Unfortunately she thought this was intended as an exhortation rather than a warning. The mother’s instinct to indulge her only child was thereby reinforced by a higher authority. I was so spoilt that on the day my parents unexpectedly came to pick me up at primary school in the middle of the morning – I was about 8 at the time – I told the teacher that it was probably because they wanted to buy me a toy. In fact, it was to go to Shropshire where my grandmother was dying.
I was also spoilt because I was such a sickly thing. I spent so much time away from infant school that the truant officer visited our house to see what was going on. What was going on was that I was always ill. When I went into hospital to have my tonsils and adenoids out – a panacea in those bountiful days of the NHS – my parents brought me a Beatrix Potter book each day. I missed having brothers and sisters but I liked the way that I didn’t have to share my toys with anyone else. It also meant I got more presents at Christmas and on my birthday.
This kind of pampering was balanced by the way that my parents had grown up in the Depression of the Thirties. They have spent their lives saving. My mother worked as a dinner lady – serving school dinners (ie, lunches) in the canteen of the school I went to until I was 11. Later, after I had left home, she became a cleaner at a hospital. My father worked as a sheet-metal worker.
We lived in a terraced house in a neighbourhood full of families. There were always plenty of kids to play with in the lane that ran behind our row of houses. Next to my school – less than ten minutes’ walk away – there was the rec where you could play football or run around. There was no shortage of companions but always, at some point, I would have to go back home, back to my parents, back to being on my own. And some days there was just no one to play with. Bear in mind how huge afternoons were back then. For a child, the hours stretch out interminably.
After my father was made redundant from his job at Gloster Aircraft, he worked nights for a while, at a factory where nylon was made. On afternoons when I had no one to play with I had to be quiet because my dad was sleeping. When I think back to my childhood now, these are the afternoons that I remember. It almost seems like a single afternoon of loneliness and boredom. I’ve never shaken off this propensity for being bored; in fact, I’ve got so used to it that I don’t even mind it that much. As a kid I was so bored I assumed it was the basic condition of existence.
The life I have ended up leading has effectively recreated those afternoons when I had no one to play with and nothing to do and so had to come up with something to amuse myself. As a kid this meant drawing or making something; as an adult it means writing things like this. I’m not only used to having them, I need hours and hours of uninterrupted free time if I’m ever to get anything done. And yet, at the same time, I never love the life of the writer more than when I have someone to play with, when I’m down at the park playing tennis on a Monday – or Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday – afternoon. If you fancy a game I’m always free.
Our family life was completely devoid of culture, both in the selective sense of music, art and literature, and in the larger sense. There was no community life, none of the remembered richness of working-class life that served as ballast for Raymond Williams and Tony Harrison when they left home and went to university. There was just my mum and dad and me and the television. We bought a record player, but after about a month my dad gave up on buying records (Green, Green Grass of Home by Tom Jones was the last). Sometimes we visited relatives such as my Uncle Harry and Auntie Lean in Shurdington. Harry kept whippets. Their house smelt of dogs and I always ended sneezing because, as well as being ill the whole time, I was allergic to cats and the fine hair of the whippets. My Auntie Joan lived a few doors down, in the gloomy council house full of stuffed birds where she and my dad and my other aunts had grown up. Joan kept poodles and her house smelled even worse than Uncle Harry’s. I think these visits were the first things I ever endured. I only had one cousin – herself an only child – who was close to my age. The rest, most of whom lived in another part of the country, were all a lot older.
My parents were never very social: my mum had been brought up as a Methodist and so did not drink. Occasionally, we would drive out to a pub with a garden for chicken in the basket but my dad never went out on his own to meet friends in a pub. We never went to restaurants. Basically, except for visits, we stayed home and saved money. I loved it in the winter when it got dark early and we locked the doors and drew the curtains and stayed in.
So: no brothers, no sisters, just one cousin – and no pets except for the occasional goldfish which expired soon after it was brought home from the fairground in a polythene bag full of water. The lack of pets and siblings had a bad effect on me. Love was coming at me in vast quantities from my parents, but because I was never allowed to have pets I had no experience – apart from the instinctive love of child for parent – of learning to take care of something more vulnerable and needy than me.
It was natural, since I didn’t have to share my toys with any siblings, that I became a collector. I collected all sorts of cards, Airfix soldiers and comics. I loved arranging my things – whatever they were – and putting them into some kind of order. I still love doing this. I spent much of my time making model aeroplanes and doing jigsaws: things that you can do on your own. (My mother had a particular way of doing jigsaws: we sorted out the side pieces and made a hollow, unstable frame, then filled in the middle. Our approach to jigsaws was, in other words, methodical, rigorous. Work had entered into every facet of my parents’ lives; even leisure activities had about them some of the qualities of labour.)
I would like to say that I displayed the single child’s customary ability to develop a rich imaginative life but I don’t think I did – unless finding ways to play games intended for two or more players on your own counts as imaginative. In my late thirties I bought a flat in Brighton. It was a big place, big enough to accommodate something I’d long wanted: a ping-pong table. The problem was that I knew almost no one in Brighton and, except on weekends when friends from London visited, I had no one to play with. It took me right back to my childhood, that table. In its immense, folded uselessness it symbolised all the afternoons I spent playing games on my own. I played Subbuteo on my own – almost impossible since you have to flick both the attacking players and control the opposing goalkeeper simultaneously. I played Monopoly on my own. I played Cluedo on my own. When I eventually got round to it, masturbation seemed the natural outcome of my childhood.
A few years after hitting upon this solitary activity I discovered another: reading. I had passed the 11-plus and gone to Cheltenham Grammar School where, for the first four years, I was an indifferent student. Then, at the age of about 15, under the influence of my English teacher, I started to do well at school and began to spend more and more time reading. I passed all my O levels and stayed on for A levels. During my first year at grammar school we had moved from a terraced house to a semi-detached one with three bedrooms. I wonder if I would have had the peace and space to study if I had had brothers and sisters. It’s impossible to say, but reading and study filled the vacuum of boredom that had been there for as long as I could remember. However, reading created a gap as well as filling one.
It became obvious, early in the lower sixth form, that I would go to university. I would be the first person in my family to do so – I was already the first to be doing A levels or their equivalent. And then, as the time for the exams approached and it became evident that, unless I messed up, I would get very high grades, my English teacher advised me to try for Oxford. My parents only knew of Oxford through University Challenge. Of course, they liked the idea of my going to Oxford, but they made a big fuss about how other parents wouldn’t have let their children stay on at school; other children would have had to start bringing money into the house. I hated this because it was stupid and because it was so obviously untrue. Even if they didn’t know what Oxford was, they were as excited by the prospect of my going there as I was.
We had many arguments, in the course of which I often became furious. During one such argument – I forget what it was about – my father and I became involved in a scuffle. My mum tried to intercede and, in the process, my father accidentally elbowed her in the nose. “That’s me nose gone!” she said, a remark so idiotic that I became incandescent with rage. It is strange and unfair, but even now that rage has never entirely gone away.
I am angry at the way that my parents were oppressed, but at some level I am angry with them for having internalised their oppression. In Raymond Williams’s Border Country, the autobiographical protagonist tells a friend that every value he has comes only from his father. Many of my values come from my parents: honesty, reliability, resilience – the bedrock values. But there are other qualities I have been attracted to – vivacity, charm, light-heartedness, grace, urbanity, doing things quickly – which had no place in my parents’ world: they were privileges.
Also, because my parents had always worked hard – for practically nothing – I never set any store by hard work. My father was proud of never having been on the dole. During the summer between A levels and the start of the Oxbridge term I had a part-time job in a shop, which meant the pay I received counted against my entitlement to benefit. Effectively I was working for nothing. My father thought it better for me to give up my time to work at this c**p job than it was for me to get the same money from the state. It is no exaggeration to say that I hated him for this. My parents’ view of the world was just too simple: it was suited to the Depression but not to the Seventies.
I, on the other hand, had the contemporary idea that the world owed me a living. This became more acute after I passed the Oxbridge exam and got a so-called exhibition (a form of scholarship) to Corpus Christi College. From then on the gap between my parents and me widened as I realised that, as well as an intangible intellectual world different to the one I had grown up in, there was an actual social world too. This, the classic quandary of the scholarship boy, has been thoroughly documented in many novels. Here I will mention just two representative episodes. In my second year at university I came back home for my 21st birthday. My mother had made a cake and my father had paid to have it decoratively iced, in the shape of an open book. Printed across the cake, like print on the open pages, was the name of my college: Corpus Christi. It had the look of a shrine or totem, which in some sense it was, an expression of the mysterious and vast symbolic power of books. This mystery, needless to say, was enhanced by the way that my father had never actually read one. My Uncle Peter took a photograph of that cake and it seems the proudest thing in the world – and the saddest.
In my final year at university I came home unexpectedly and turned up at my old primary school where my mother still worked in the canteen. She opened the door in her dinner lady’s blue uniform. We both started crying and embraced each other. We held each other because we both had an inkling that part of my education was to understand that it was more than just education. I was my parents’ only child, but the life I would go on to lead would be so different to theirs, and the most important part of this difference was the way that it could never be explained and articulated to them by me.
What does this have to do with being an only child? Everything. Let’s suppose I’d had a younger sister. Perhaps she would have been influenced by my example and gone on to university and would have begun to have a different life to the one we had grown up to expect. Then, as a family, we could all have moved along together. Alternatively, if my brother had left school early and led the life that someone from my background might have been predicted to lead, it would have bound me more closely to the world I had come from. There would have been more ballast. Either way, there would have been an intermediary. I wouldn’t have been the oddity, a weird exception that no sense can be made of or conclusions drawn from.
I had a friend who went to Cambridge while his brother left school after A levels. For a while they drifted apart but then, in their different scenes, they discovered a common interest: drugs. I like to think that if I’d had a relationship like this with a brother who had, say, left school early and worked as a bricklayer or an electrician, we would have been more of a family. It wouldn’t have just been my parents and their son who had gone to Oxford and led this strange life of doing nothing. As it was, my parents remained cocooned in a late 20th-century version of the Thirties.
For a time, while I was at university and in the years immediately afterwards, I tried to get my mum to read proper books (Jude the Obscure, Sons and Lovers: novels that initiated and articulated the process we were living through) and to get my dad to read The Guardian. I played them some of the music I was listening to (Keith Jarrett), tried to get them to try different teas, real coffee, to eat nicer food. They didn’t like any of it. (From time to time we still have conversations about diet. “You know, you really shouldn’t be eating eggs and chips the whole time,” I say. “Well, we’ve been eating them for our whole lives and it’s never done us any harm,” says my dad. “You don’t think that the fact you had cancer of the rectum and have had a colostomy counts as harm?” “Get away with you,” says my dad. “That was nothing to do with that.”)
If there is a special loneliness that is intrinsic to the single child, there is a particular isolation that attaches to the scholarship boy or girl. Most people come from families with brothers and sisters. And most people in the world I have been part of for the past 20 years are from middle-class families: they speak the same way as their parents, they go to the same things, have similar interests. The terrible truth is that, ostensibly, I have more in common with my wife’s parents – her dad is an academic, her mum a piano teacher – than I do with my own. Almost everything that counts for anything in the world I have been part of has been learnt, acquired. Most of the things I grew up knowing about are irrelevant.
Except – and the importance of this can hardly be overstated – my parents have a sense of humour! They’re funny. What greater gift can parents pass on to their children? In my impatient maturity anyone without a sense of humour bores the c**p out of me. This is not the only way in which something I picked up from my parents manifests itself. My parents, as I have said, laid great stress on being reliable, punctual, dependable. We are encouraged to think of reliable people as boring, dull, and perhaps for a brief while, after leaving university, I flirted with this in that I was drawn to carefree, careless people. Then I realised that unreliable, dishonest people are the most boring people in the world. One of the advantages of the way that new social opportunities open up to you – and for me this began happening after university – is that you can have it both ways: there are plenty of people out there who are fun, pleasure-loving, clever and reliable. It’s got to the stage now, in my late forties, where I try to minimise contact with unreliable, unpunctual people.
For different reasons – for my parents it was a moral judgment, for me it’s impatience – we have ended up sharing an aversion to particular forms of behaviour. Especially lying. I am told that if you have brothers and sisters you learn to lie – about each other, or in collusion with each other to your parents. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that I have grown up with almost no capacity for lying (I like scams and dodges but that is different; that is part of a battle of wits). My parents made me believe that as long as I was honest everything would be OK. I am still almost incapable of lying in real life. And it took me a long time to learn how to do so on the page.
It wasn’t until 1987 that I really understood how liberating the task of writing fiction could be. I was 29 and writing a book based closely on the life my friends and I were leading in Brixton, South London. At that time I was going through a phase of wishing that I had a sister. I’d had these longings before, but never as intensely. It came to me in a flash – and it should be obvious by now that this is not the first time that I have belatedly realised something that everyone else has either known for ages or taken for granted – that if I wanted a sister I could just invent one. It was as easy as that. And not only could I invent a sister, I could invent the perfect sister – one you were sexually attracted to. Friends who have sisters say that only someone who didn’t have one would think in these terms, but I think that hint of incest added a useful quality of unease to the novel. Anyway, it worked.
I never again had a craving for a sister.